iPhone 3GS full review - Page 3

The iPhone 3GS battery life test

Every since the launch of the iPhone 3G, battery life has been something of a contentious issue for the iPhone. It turns out that 3G – which, we hasten to add, was a more than welcome addition to the iPhone – sucks a lot of the juice from the phone.

At the original launch of the iPhone in the UK, Steve Jobs said that Apple didn't want to include 3G because it wasn't energy efficient: "What we did was rather than cut the battery life way down," said Steve "we built in WiFi … and we kind of sandwiched 3G with a very energy efficient Edge, and a very energy efficient and much faster WiFi."

This policy changed with the introduction of the iPhone 3G, and with each successive update Apple has improved power management. But even so, battery life remains a contentious issue and it was with little surprise that we found it reared its head again during the launch of the iPhone 3GS.

It's worth noting that the iPhone 3GS has a faster processor (which sucks more juice) but a more energy efficient 65nm chipset. The teardown of the iPhone 3GS also revealed a slightly larger battery.

The iPhone 3GS has a 1219mAh (milliampere-hour) battery, up 6 per cent on the iPhone 3G's 1150mAh battery; but still 13 per cent smaller than the 1400mAh battery on the original iPhone. The original iPhone battery was fixed to the motherboard, wheras the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS batteries are attached and can be replaced. Although like the iPod, replacing an iPhone battery requires you to contact a specialist rather than just buying a new one and plugging it in.

iPhone: 1400 mAh
iPhone 3G: 1150 mAh

iPhone 3GS: 1219 mAh

So what's all this translate to in real life? Well to try and make sense of whether the iPhone 3GS offered better, or worse, battery life than the iPhone 3G we put it through a series of tests.

Each test was conducted using a 100 per cent battery in both phones, and was either 30 mins or 60 mins. Both phones performed the task at the same time and duration was measured with a stopwatch. At the end of the test we used an app called myBatteryLife to measure the percentage of battery remaining. We fully recharged both iPhones before performing a second test.

We have two caveats with this test. Firstly we should point out that myBatteryLife only measures percentages in blocks of 5 per cent, but it is more accurate than measuring the iPhone battery bar (myBatteryLife also purports to estimate how much life remains for doing a particular task, but there is some doubt as to how accurate it is at this task so that data was not recorded for this test. Secondly, the iPhone 3G we tested the iPhone 3GS against has been in use for over a year; although its battery hasn't displayed any signs of performance degradation during this time.

On the whole we found the iPhone 3GS sucked slightly more juice than the iPhone 3G at almost every task. The only exception being Real Racing, which took 5 per cent more juice from the iPhone 3G than it did from the iPhone 3GS.

Having said that, the differences were not tremendously huge. We certainly found nothing to support the so-called iDrain stories circulating on the Internet. Typically we found the iPhone 3GS to be more or less comparable to the iPhone 3G, which is in itself fairly comparable to other smartphones on the market.

However, users migrating from legacy mobile phones – with small screens and no GPS or 3G networking – will find the battery life on the iPhone 3GS shockingly brief. This is especially true when watching video or playing games, although using the phone for general browsing and voice chat with 3G enabled can drain the battery.

On Macworld we don't find this to be too much of a problem because we charge our iPhones during the night, and work in an office where power sockets and dock chargers are not particularly hard to find. However, we understand that many people may not find it so easy to keep an iPhone on constant charge, and heavy usage will result in it losing juice throughout the day, and running out in the evening. There are a few options here: you can either switch off power draining features (3G and push services are notorious drains; location services such as GPS somewhat less so). Some or all of these can be disabled in the settings.

Apple offers plenty of advice regarding the iPhone battery on this page.

Of course, playing games and watching videos on that large touchscreen is a shortcut to a flat battery. If you can't get near a power socket during the day, and like to play games or watch videos a lot then maybe you should consider one of the many external batteries that can double or triple the lifespan of the iPhone.

Measuring the heat of the iPhone 3GS

The other issue that has surrounded the launch of the iPhone 3GS has been the operating temperature. Some users allege that the iPhone runs hot; some have even complained of discolouration of the white model of iPhone 3GS due to excessive heat.

A warm-feeling rear plate has always been true of the iPhone. It may come as a surprise to many new users, but we've never found it to be a problem.

Apple recently posted a page on its support site that offered the following advice to iPhone owners.

"Operate iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS in a place where the temperature is between 0º and 35º C (32º to 95º F). Low- or high-temperature conditions might temporarily shorten battery life or cause the device to temporarily stop working properly.

Store iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS in a place where the temperature is between -20º and 45º C (-4º to 113º F). Don't leave the device in your car, because temperatures in parked cars can exceed this range."
Apple seems to think that most of the over-heating issues noticed by users on the iPhone are in relation to leaving the phone in a car, we presume in a location of the world considerably hotter than the UK.

Here in the UK we have never seen the temperature warning (on any model of iPhone), nor have we noticed any problems with charging or with a weak cellular signal.

We used an Standard ST-8820 Environment Meter with an external sensor attachment to measure the heat of the iPhone in various different settings. In general the iPhone 3GS ran slightly hotter than the iPhone 3G, but only by about 2ºc. We had an ambient room temperature of 24.4ºc and the highest temperature we recorded was 30.8ºc (which was the glass plate of the iPhone 3GS while Real Racing was playing). At 6ºc above the ambient room temperature it is warm enough to be noticeable, but not so warm as to be uncomfortable.

In generally, the screen emitted slightly more heat than the rear plate, and playing games and using GPS emitted more heat than watching video clips.

Above all though, no phone during any test we undertook went anywhere near Apple's recommended usage levels. Maybe if you're gaming in the Mohave desert things are different, but we sincerely doubt you'll find operating temperature to be any concern here in the UK.

iPhone 3GS Voice Control in the UK

One of the more interesting features of the iPhone 3GS is the new Voice Control feature. Hold down the earphone button (or home button) and wait till you hear a beep. Now speak a command into the iPhone and it will perform that function.

When you Activate Voice control the screen turns blue, and a list of some example commands floats across the screen.

Here is the official list of commands:

Call someone in contacts: Say "call" or "dial," then say the name of the person. If the person has more than one phone number you can add "home" or "mobile", for example.

Dial a number: Say "call" or "dial" then say the number.

Make a correction: "say "wrong", "not that one," "not that," "no" or "nope."

Control music playback": Say "play," or "play music." To pause, say "pause," or "pause music." You can also say "next song" or "previous song".

Play an album, artist, or playlist: Say "play," then say "album," "artist," or "playlist" and the name.

Shuffle the current playlist: Say "shuffle".

Find out more about the currently playing song: "say "what's playing," "what song is this," "who sings this song," or "who is this song by."

Use Genius to play similar songs: Say "Genius," "play more like this," or "play more songs like this one".

Cancel Voice Control: Say "cancel."

Although though it's not on the official list, you can get some quick advice by saying "help."

We have traditionally been dubious regarding voice control. English tending to mean American English, with a Californian accent, but were impressed when Apple informed us that it had been localised into different countries. The speaking aspect of Voice Control has been converted into a British accent, with a slightly posh Home Counties accent.

But the real question is does it understand what you're saying when you speak English with a British accent?

No… sadly it doesn't. We initially put it down to our brogue Northern enunciation. Every we said "play" it tried to dial a "Claire" in the Address Book.

More complex requests, such as "play songs by Bruce Springsteen" simply dialled other people, an old friend called Poz Hulls in this case.

We tested it out in the office with a range of accents from around the country and nobody had any success. It successfully catches what you say approximately 25 per cent of the time. The rest of the time it fails to understand, or – more often than not – dials somebody random from your address book.

It has to be said that there are some really cool Voice Control features. For example, you can set Nicknames in Address Book and use them to call people. Nicknames such as Wife can be set in Contacts or Address Book (Wife dials various Mikes in the Address Book); or Dad (which calls the Editor in Chief's grandmother, who's called Dot).

The fact that often randomly dials people eventually prevented us from using Voice Control at all. We would like the option to turn off the voice dialling aspect of Voice Control while retaining the iPod functionality. We're happy to play around with the music control aspects, but not at the expense of constantly bugging random friends with missed calls. Because of this Voice Control remains unused and, for us at least, it remains unusable.

Before we move on to our round-up and buying advice we just want to mention a couple of other new features on the iPhone 3Gs.

The first is built-in Nike+ support. This found its way on to the iPod touch 2G and is now on the iPhone. If you have a pair of Nike+ trainers and a compatible Nike+ dongle you can use the iPhone 3GS to track how far, and how fast, you've run. It's a pretty neat trick but you will probably need an iPhone 3GS armband and we're not so sure it lends itself to the jogging experience as the iPod.

The iPhone 3GS also supports the new headphone controls found on the iPod shuffle 3G. These contain volume up/down switches as well as the play/pause button and built-in microphone. As with the iPhone 3G the iPhone 3GS does not have the recessed headphone socket so you can always supply your own earphones, and a wide variety of iPhone compatible models are available.

Is the iPhone 3GS any good as a mobile phone?

Here's a paradox. The iPhone 3GS is such a good mobile internet device, web browser, portable computer, and media player; that its base function – that of being a mobile phone – often gets overlooked.

This is somewhat understandable; it's hard to get excited about making a phone call when you can demonstrate Google maps with built-in GPS and magnetic compass location. And the App Store has changed everything, making the iPhone a veritable Swiss Army Knife of devices, capable of seemingly everything.

We say all this because it's somewhat understandable that everybody overlooks the fact that the iPhone 3GS is a decidedly average mobile phone. We took the iPhone 3GS to a noisy environment (the local bar, it's a tough life) and used it to make and receive phone calls. We then did the same with a couple of other popular phones, the BlackBerry Bold and a Nokia N95 8GB; our (again, unscientific) analysis was that both the BlackBerry and Nokia had better audio clarity than the iPhone.

It's a somewhat odd fact that a device that is so good for playing music, especially through it's superb built-in speaker, has such poor voice audio quality.

We also have some reservations about Apple's contacts management app, which works a treat if you sync it with Address Book, but isn't quite so happy if you sync with Google, for example.

Having said that the new search functionality in the iPhone 3.0 software update make it easy to find any contacts on your phone; regardless of how scrappy your contacts may be. It will be interesting for us to compare the iPhone 3GS to the Palm Pre WebOS, with its focus on collating all your online contacts.

Having said that, texting remains a joy on the iPhone 3GS with its iChat-style interface, and the new text features (MMS, and individual text delete) add an element of much-needed functionality.

On the whole it's fair to say that the iPhone 3GS is an amazing mobile computer, combined with location-aware, web-browsing, multi-media functionality; that just happens to be an okay mobile phone to boot. We certainly wouldn't want it the other way round.

UK Pricing for the iPhone 3GS

The price of the iPhone was controversial at launch (remember that the original iPhone cost £269 and £35 per month for 200 minutes and 200 texts.) Even to this day that deal sounds horrific. So much so that we veered away from giving it five stars.

Then of course came the iPhone 3G and the much more reasonable price of £99 plus £35 per month. And – of course – a free upgrade for all iPhone owners. If only Apple and O2 had managed to stick to that pricing structure for the iPhone 3GS there would have been a queue from the Apple Store to Mars.

Sadly the phone seems to have veered back on the uncomfortable side of expensive. The lack of an 8GB option (the 8GB model is the older iPhone 3G option) means that the entry level for the iPhone 3GS is higher than before. Pricing is complex so we'll compare the £35 per month contract, which is the most commonly used in the Macworld UK office.

So, for £35 per month you have to pay £184.99 for the 16GB handset; this is slightly higher than the 16GB iPhone 3G that it has replaced.

In America, conversely, the iPhone 3GS is the same price ($199) as the old 8GB iPhone 3G model; while the iPhone 3G has been dropped to a mere $99. Of course it is unfair to compare the price directly because the Americans sign up to a 24-month contract versus our stock 18 month contract. Compare like for like (24 month with 24 month) and you find that the iPhone 3GS 16GB is actually cheaper in the UK (£87.11) than the US ($199).

But still, the iPhone has always been cheaper in the UK than the US, we assume because our mobile network is more smaller and more efficient, and the market over here is different.

Even so, the iPhone has always had a reputation for being uncomfortably expensive, and while the £99 iPhone 3G with its free upgrade for iPhone owners made some progress, the iPhone 3GS is a step back.

Our personal thoughts are that the iPhone is worth it; even the original iPhone was worth £269, and the iPhone 3GS is worth £185. Simply put, we use the iPhone so much that it quickly earns its worth. And judging by Apple's sales progress it would appear that many people agree with us, and are more than happy to pay the price that Apple is asking. But that's a call each individual purchaser has to make.

It's worth noting that there is also a Pay & Go option. Here are the three prices.

iPhone 3G 8GB - £342.50
iPhone 3GS 16GB - £440.40
iPhone 3GS 32GB - £538.30

You get a year's free data access with Pay & Go, and it costs £10 per month thereafter. It's worth noting that all data plans on the iPhone in the UK are for unlimited data usage, something that many other smartphones lack.

Calls and texts on the Pay & Go vary, you can find out full details on the O2 web site. The one thing you don't get on Pay & Go is the Visual Voicemail feature.

The iPhone 3GS is Apple right at the top of its game. Make no mistake; Apple has absolutely nailed-it with this version. Everything feels just right with this iPhone; the apps work better, the interface is smoother, and the web experience is nigh-on perfect. It's getting to the point where you might as well leave your laptop at home.

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